Thursday, January 13, 2005

Five Finger Exercise

For the past couple months, we’ve had a guest in the house — a piano, on loan from one of my wife’s colleagues. Not a real, hammers-and-soundboard-and-strings piano, but one of the nicer electronic models, with realistic action and only one voice (as opposed to those pianos that double as harpsichords or organs or whatnot). Never having counted myself a pianist — although I had lessons (from my grandmother) as a child, piano always ranked behind various band instruments when it came to getting practice time from me — having a piano in the house hadn’t been a priority, and I’d spent most of the last couple decades letting my trusty DX-7 take care of any keyboard needs.

Now that it’s there, of course, it seems inconceivable that we didn’t have a piano before. It’s been humbling, of course, to note how badly my meager skills had deteriorated over the years; not only does my left hand stumble and miss when trying to keep up with the right, but my fingers inexplicably keep ending up on notes other than those I’ve intended, which is not a problem I have on other instruments. Still, I’ve dug out various music books and have been happy pounding away at the lower numbers in Bartok’s Mikrokosmos and plodding through the easier bits of the Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy on hand.

At this point, I should launch into some minor hair-pulling over not having spent more time practicing the piano in my youth, but to be honest I don’t particularly regret not being a better pianist — no more than the pianists I know regret not being able to play bass. Part of that stems from the satisfaction of knowing that I’m more at home with string and wind instruments (and while I do regret having lost my embouchure over the years, I’m sure my neighbours are quite glad I’m retired from lower brass). Mainly, though, I don’t miss being a better pianist because I know how much work it would have taken. It takes a lot of effort and thousands of hours of practice to become even adequate by professional standards of piano playing; even more daunting is the fact that one could devote a lifetime to practice and still never been any better than “good.” It’s a very hard road to travel, and some of the best pianists I’ve interviewed speak of never feeling as if they’ve mastered the instrument.

That’s one of the reasons I try to discourage friends, when they mention that they’d like to start their children on music lessons, from thrusting piano on their offspring. Don’t get me wrong — I think everyone should learn some piano, just as drawing and swimming should be universal skills. But it’s better for children to start with an instrument that seems to get easier as it goes along, as opposed to piano, which gets harder. Turning the squawk of a clarinet or the screech of a violin into a melody can be a source of tremendous satisfaction for a child, and the discipline gained through practice can be applied to more arduous tasks (such as learning piano) later on.

Of course, all that is based on the (possibly quaint) notion that instrumental proficiency is a talent worth having, and won’t be outmoded by sampling, sequencing and other digital manipulation skills. We all have our illusions.

I wish I HAD been forced to take music lessons of some sort so I could read music. I play guitar and read chord charts and can puzzle out a few notes of written music if I have to, but the only way I can learn the rhythmic directions is by listening to the music.

I learn mostly by copying recordings -- or playing along with them until I have a passable chord accompaniment worked up. Which is an agonizing process because I seem to have a very slow ear.

Sometimes I start a project and then give up. I learned the chords to the Bix/Eddie Lang/Tram "Singin' the Blues." But then I tried learning the Tram solo on slide guitar and got a ways into it before I decided it was going to be too much work. Plus I don't have an accompanist to play the chords and don't have recording gear on hand to play multiple tracks myself.

I haven't closed the door on it for good, but for now.
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